Journey into Identity by Hanan Elmasu
BirZeit University, Palestine
5 May 1999
We started off on our journey late, as usual, but lateness is one of the many things I have become accustomed to here. The journey included me, another Palestinian woman, a Syrian friend from the Israeli occupied village of Majd Al Shams, and two friends from Ramallah. We were going for a long weekend to the North, first visiting Majd Al Shams and staying on a few more days to visit more of the Golan.
We drove through the West Bank talking and listening to music, anticipating a relaxing weekend away from the chaos of work and Ramallah. It was a much needed holiday, and an opportunity for me to see more of the land. I'd had very few opportunities to stray from the West Bank, both for work reasons and as a result of the inability to move around freely without a car. I was excited about seeing the Golan, and meeting Palestinians and Syrians living within the 'green line', as I had not had many opportunities to do so before.
Our trip was comfortable until we neared the Israeli military checkpoint dividing the West Bank and the 1948 borders of Israel. Our two friends from Ramallah carried orange Israeli military identity cards, which restricts their movement to West Bank areas only. Whether or not we passed the checkpoint determined whether or not we went on holiday. We deliberated on the tactic we would use to try and pass, and decided that we would pretend to be asleep in the back seat and the two in the front would be laughing about something as we passed, so that we looked like we were 'normal' people going on a trip.
We passed the checkpoint without being stopped, a success which we laughed about out of the previous nervousness and felt a sense of accomplishment towards as a result of 'fooling' the Israeli soldiers. I felt like I was going to throw up. I couldn't speak for at least half an hour. Here we were, a group of five friends going on a holiday somewhere less than 100 kilometres away from where we lived, celebrating the fact that we passed an artificial checkpoint which restricts our lives every day. The two people who weren't 'supposed' to be going through that checkpoint were originally from areas 'protected' by that checkpoint. I felt nauseated by the fact that we were celebrating something which by right should be natural. It is something I always feel when I pass these checkpoints, abetted by the fact that I can pass freely because I was not born here. My feelings in the car were a foreshadowing of emotions that would come into play for all of us during the next three days.
Our journey to Majd Al Shams was a beautiful one. The contradictions in landscape, from green valleys to deserts to mountains is one that has taken time for me, coming from the very green British Colombia, to become accustomed to, but a landscape which I have learned to love. The trip was also a history lesson for me, with my companions pointing out areas along the way which were once thriving Palestinian villages, now destroyed and devoid of any Palestinian identity, places for which one cannot find names on maps anymore.
We were warmly welcomed in Majd Al Shams by 'Samir's' family, and immediately made to sit and eat and drink. Friends began to arrive to welcome us and we were soon whisked off to a restaurant of another friend to eat and drink more, as well as listen to another friend play the 'Oud (Palestinan lute) and guitar and sing traditional songs, as so many of our get togethers are spent. For me, it was the first time to meet many of these people, but they immediately treated me as a part of their family and welcomed me openly. The relationship of solidarity which exists between the youth of Majd Al Shams and those from the West Bank is a very strong one, with both experiencing the hardships of Israeli occupation and finding a camaraderie based on shared experiences. It is a relationship which I do not necessarily feel a part of, but one which I respect deeply.
The time spent with Samir's friends and family was a difficult learning experience for me. From the moment we arrived, I found myself uncertain of the traditions and norms that I was facing, as it was my first experience in the Golan, and my first real encounter with a Druse family. I also found myself the butt of many jokes, which I humbly endured, but which reinforced my lack of knowledge and uncertainty. As a result, I found myself making mistakes which I would not have made had I had a better understanding of the life lived by so many people in the Occupied Golan. My experiences there left me feeling very much a foreigner. At the same time, the people I met will stay with me for the rest of my life. Samir's mother, for example, is originally Lebanese and has not returned to her home just across the dividing line of Israel and Lebanon for over thirty years. Births, deaths, marriages, life of family has gone by without her being able to be a part of it. Yet a more enlightened, compassionate, and caring woman I have never met. We found ourselves talking about everything in the world, at one point even talking about the rights of donkeys, and how she would cry when she saw how donkeys were abused!
The next day, after a brief tour of Majd Al Shams and the nearby border of Syria, we left Samir and his family and made our way to the cabins we had rented an hour's drive away from Majd Al Shams. We spent our first night there in uneasiness, all for different reasons. For me, my experiences in Majd Al Shams, rather than helping me to identify more with being Palestinian, made me feel very distant from that reality, mostly because of my lack of understanding of things which should have been very straight forward. The next day would only prove worse, not only for me, but for all four of us. We met a local Druse restaurant owner who showed us around the area we were staying. The town he lived in included both Arab and Jewish inhabitants. Our guide served in the Israeli military, as many Druse do, and our discussions revolved most of the day around that aspect.
However, one of the most difficult instances of the day was our visit to a nearby mountain where we went exploring. We came upon a group of Arab school children whom we stopped to talk to. Full of life and excitement on their field trip, they asked us where we were coming from and what we were doing here. We told them we were Palestinians from Ramallah and that we were coming to see some of Palestine. They laughed at us and told us that this wasn't Palestine, this was Israel. We asked them what it was before it was Israel, and one young boy related the history of the area from ancient biblical times, to Napoleon, to the Israeli occupation of the area, without mention of Palestinians on the land. We asked them incredulously if they knew that on this land once lived Palestinians, and they stared at us as if we were lunatics. It was a devastating experience for all four of us, and one that left us reeling at the fact that even the history books used to teach young Arab children had deleted the history of Palestine. In another fifty years, would anyone here remember Palestine? Or would we be lost somewhere in between Napoleon and Israel?
The day did not get much better. After our tour of the village, we went to drink coffee at our guide's restaurant, where we found one of his friends and his infant daughter. This friend had served in the Israeli army in Gaza during the Intifada. We were again faced with another contradiction: this man, an Arab, had served in the Israeli military, and fought against Palestinians in the Intifada, this same man who was now welcoming us from the West Bank, with a genuine desire to get to know us. Two of us had been here during the Intifada. One had spent the days of the Intifada in Israeli prisons at the age of 17. The other, who had before the Intifada been one of the best Palestinian athletes with a very bright future, had been beaten so severely by an Israeli soldier that one of his legs was now paralysed and he walked with the aid of a crutch. To add to the contradiction, this man was relating to us the difficulties that many Druse face in Israeli society if they chose not to serve in the military, from financial difficulties to social stigmatisation. At the same time that he was trying to convince us of the fact that serving in the military was not a choice, he spoke of the emotional difficulties he himself faced because of his service in the army, and the sense that he held Palestinian blood on his hands.
I wanted to leave the whole scene immediately, unable to deal with the contradictions this man was relating to us, as well as my conviction that he could have chosen not to be an Israeli soldier. Throughout our encounter, the only thing I could envision was the fact that at checkpoints, it is often Druse soldiers who are the most cruel to Palestinians, and that they take on positions in which they are the jailers and torturers of their fellow Palestinians. I could not even begin to fathom what the feelings of my two male friends from Ramallah were, but all of us were deeply effected by the events of the day, as we again spent another uneasy evening in our cabin. Facts are often the most difficult things to process when your reality is so severely effected by war and occupation. It is the unseen processes of assimilation and a willing loss of memory which are the most insidious effects of occupation, and the most difficult to come to terms with.
The day of our return held a further assault on our minds. As we started to drive back towards Ramallah, we decided to stop over in the port town of Akka. On our journey, 'Mazen', a refugee from Al Am'ari camp, kept pointing to strips of land and saying, this is where my family is from. We laughed at him, because every strip of land we passed was supposedly the village he came from. He was uncertain as to where it was, (it was actually in the South, no where near where we were driving!), but this in itself was upsetting, as he had never known it in reality, but through the words of his family and their remembrances. Indeed, I have only ever seen it listed on one map, as it was destroyed in 1948.
In Akka, 'Yasin' and I wandered off to sit by the ocean, where we found a young boy, not more than 7 or 8 years old, trying to catch fish. Yasin spent some time with him trying to catch fish, while I watched from a distance. Our moods were still melancholy, and neither of us were really relaxed. In the past, the sea has always been a source of comfort for me, but here I found that it only added to my troubled mind, as it did for Yasin. Speaking to the young boy only unsettled us more, as he spoke initially about the Israelis as people he liked, but then related to us after he knew we were Palestinians that he hated them, because they tried to burn down the house of a neighbour once, and attacked them with knives. The initial hesitation of this young boy, and then the relation of his experiences, only served to add to our unrest at the end of our journey.
Our encounters during those three days unsettled each and every one of us, each for similar and individual reasons. We spoke about it briefly upon our return, but since then have not externalised the effects which it had on us. For me, it was another delve into identity, an identity which I have been struggling to comprehend. However, my journey into identity has gone far beyond the over four years that I have chosen to live in Palestine and the experiences which I have had here. It is a journey which has taken place both mentally and physically for as long as I can remember.
Ironically, it was an Arab-Jewish women's dialogue group which I was active in during my university days which first set the physical journey in motion. I had become active in such groups since the Gulf War, when a few Jewish friends and I protested the war on the basis that we were Jews and Arabs. Growing up in Canada, my best friend was Jewish. It was easy to get along, as neither of us had really experienced the political ramifications of what it meant to be either, and we didn't have the Oslo Accords to call our friendship 'normalisation'.
Two of my aunts were in this group and we were discussing what it meant to be a refugee. Suddenly, through the words of my aunts, I saw my own mother. Unable to return to her home after the 1967 war, my mother found herself making her life in a completely foreign place, forced to abandon family, home and anything familiar. For thirty years, my mother had lived as a stranger in Canada, never able to call it home, and never able to return to what she called home, or feel completely comfortable there even if she could return after 30 years of intense changes and becoming accustomed to living in a world where no one talked about freedom and respect for human rights because they were always protected. But it was always home. Until about 13 years of age, I didn't know that Palestine was called Palestine. My parents always referred to it as 'back home'. Whenever we would visit, I would tell my friends that we were going 'back home', never really thinking that the place may have a name. It was a concept that was ingrained in me from childhood.
Overwhelmed by the realisation of what my mother must suffer, I began to cry uncontrollably in front of 20 Arab and Jewish women. I could not comprehend the fact that my mother would never be at home anywhere. Before that, she was just mom, the woman who unceasingly pushed aside my long bangs and told me I needed to cut my hair and always worried that I never ate well. At that moment, she had become a woman who would never be at peace. And I could not comprehend how she could live with that.
At the time, I did not relate that destiny to my own. I was born in San Francisco constantly surrounded by family which loved me, and lived a very comfortable and safe life in Canada until 1994. But I had always been different. I always didn't belong. My skin was darker, my family spoke a different language, and, when I was younger, people always thought my peanut butter and jelly Pita bread sandwiches came from Mars! I was definitely not from Canada, but I felt that I was very Canadian, regardless of the racism that I experienced growing up. I was proud to be Canadian although there was always the knowledge that I didn't fit in completely. And there was always the knowledge that I had another home in Palestine. Although I didn't know that home well, it was an integral part of who I was. It was the part of me which made me different from the rest of my friends and colleagues.
After my experience in the dialogue group, it became more and more important for me to understand that part of me which was Palestinian. I always knew what it meant to be Palestinian in a foreign place, but what did it mean to be Palestinian in Palestine? We had visited twice when I was younger, and kept in very close contact with family here. The overwhelming sense of belonging to an extended family was something that always gave me a great deal of comfort when I visited. I was always completely accepted by my family in Palestine, and for them, there was no doubt that I was Palestinian. Their love and concern for me formed a part of what I understood Palestine to be. But at the same time, I was always sheltered from the political aspects during our visits, aside from the harassment which we always encountered crossing borders, the young soldiers everywhere we went, and my first sight of a gun.
The Intifada also had a very strong effect on me. In my mind, there was always an intense vision of my cousins and young family members fighting against an oppressive power. I envied them their strength and their courage to be able to do that, to defend what Palestine was for them, while I was living a comfortable life in Canada. A visitor from Palestine had given me a cassette in 1988 of songs from the Intifada, which I listened to incessantly. Although I sometimes didn't understand half of the words that were being spoken at the time, I understood the struggle and the passion behind it. It was something I desperately wanted to be a part of, and an answer to identity which I was looking for. This is what it meant to be Palestinian, and that is what I wanted to be a part of.
In 1994, I decided to pick up and leave Canada and come to live and work in Palestine. Although the time between the decision and the actual leaving took two weeks, it was a decision which was in the process for many years. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to be here. I found work in human rights, and have worked in human rights since. Although it was difficult to become accustomed to living in Palestine after growing up in a very liberal Canada, I took it on with the knowledge that this was also my community, my society, a place that I was supposed to be a part of. If I didn't like something within the community, I would just have to work on changing it because, after all, this was my community, I was a part of it, and I had the right to feel comfortable in it. Naiveté has always been a part of my character, and although its not necessarily the most logical way to look at things, I don't believe its a bad way either.
There is much which can be said about my over four years here and the experiences which I have encountered. But that is another long story. I have tried to become an active member of the community and feel that this is my home. My measure of success has been somewhat dubious. Despite the fact that I have lived here for years, I live here illegally. I do not have the right as a refugee to carry a Palestinian passport. After my first two years of living here, I made the conscious decision that if I was entitled to carry a Palestinian passport at the price of giving up my Canadian or American passport, I would do it without hesitation. But the Oslo Agreement has to date denied me that right.
I am also not completely accepted by the Palestinian community as a Palestinian. I am accustomed to another way of life, was privileged to have grown up in a society in which the respect for basic human rights and the individual is a norm, the protection of a passport which many refugees do not have, and which gives me the right to travel freely in a place in which I was not born or raised in while millions of people who were born and raised here are denied that right every day. My concept of right and wrong, of life, differs to that of many Palestinians. And to many Palestinians, simply the way I dress and conduct my life will always make me a foreigner. This is not to negate the many, many Palestinians who have made me feel at home here. Despite this, I am not of this place. But I am also not of the place where I was raised. I was born in one country, raised in another, and belong to yet another, simply because my parents were not here in 1967 to be counted in an Israeli census. They ceased to exist legally as Palestinians in 1967, and I and my brother were denied the right to be raised in Palestine as a result of their absence. I will never feel completely comfortable in the place where I grew up, yet at the same time, I will never be comfortable in the place which, if history were different, I should have called home.
A recent moment in time which stands out for me these days was a very intense conversation I had with a close friend whose family was originally from Al Lid, but who was born and raised in Al Jalazoun refugee camp. He was speaking about his experiences growing up here and his imprisonment and torture by Israeli security forces because of his political beliefs, as well as his life in the refugee camp. Although I could and would never compare my own experiences to the difficult life which he has led, I found myself saying that Canada was like Jalazoun refugee camp. He was born and raised in a place which was not his home, as I was, and he would continue his life knowing that his home is elsewhere. Yet he was born into one culture, and is without a doubt Palestinian. For the hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Palestinians who have been born and raised outside of Palestine, they will be born into one culture, knowing that their legacy is another culture. And they will never completely be a part of either. It is a form of psychological torture which many young Palestinians born outside Palestine will face for the rest of their lives.
After 27 years of searching, I have come back to that same moment 9 years ago in the dialogue group. I can imagine that my mother has asked the same question which I ask myself now over and over again: 'where is my home?' Is it the place where I grew up, always set apart from everyone else, or is it the place that I have been taught to call home, where I will always be a foreigner? The journey into identity has brought me to the understanding that I am neither Canadian, nor Palestinian. There is no where which I can comfortably, and with the security identity brings, call home. I am a citizen of that divided, stateless, borderless nation called refugee: a place where I can have two passports, but no clear identity.
For K.F. and M.N.